As someone who struggled with acne for 14 years, I can say I’ve dealt with my fair share of stress acne.

And as I’ve become more knowledgeable about acne causes and treatments, I’ve discovered that the “stress acne” emotions could (partly) be the reason for sudden breakouts.

In this post, you’re going to see me attack this from different angles. Most importantly, you’re going to see if you’re struggling with stress acne yourself. 

And if you are, I’m going to give you some tips that will help eliminate your stress acne. Or at least reduce the feelings to a more comfortable state. 

And lastly. I’ll share some practical tips on how you can prevent stress acne in the future. 

This post is not about striving for perfection. I get it. In times of uncertainty, feelings of stress may be inescapable. And that’s okay. 

On the other hand, it can be hard to feel good about yourself when you look in the mirror and see a bunch of pimples staring right back at you like small, uninvited “terrorists.” 

And to make it even worse. It doesn’t help to stress about your acne because that actually makes it worse. 

Luckily, I have a way to help you escape this acne hamster wheel.

When you understand the relationship between stress and acne, it will suddenly become clear that stress acne actually can be both managed and prevented. 

Before jumping into any conclusions, let’s first establish what stress acne actually is.

What is stress acne?

The thing about stress is that it affects us not only emotionally, but physically too. When the stress levels rise, you're likely to notice it on your skin.

Not only will your skin look pale and lackluster. You'll likely see your acne worsen too.

A study conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine confirmed that increased acne severity is significantly associated with stress levels [1]. 

That means when stress levels go up, so does the severity of your acne. No stress → mild acne. Stress times 10 → moderate acne. (Disclaimer: This is super-simplified, but you get the point.)

How does stress worsen acne?

Stress acne

Multiple mechanisms are at work behind this relationship between stress and acne [2]. 

Let's start with hormones. 

When you're stressed, you're more likely to produce more adrenal androgens [3].

This is especially true for chronic stress. That's because our adrenal glands produce cortisol, the stress hormone, and androgens at the same time [4]. 

The influx of androgens then stimulates our sebaceous glands (oil glands) to pump out more oil or sebum [2].

The excess oil from the sebum production can then contribute to the clog in your pores, which can eventually lead to acne [5].

Aside from this, psychological stress can also contribute to skin inflammation [6]. That means more redness and swollenness to your acne.

Next up is how stress can mess with your resistance to infection [7]. Another factor that leads to acne blemishes forming is acne bacteria [4].

And with your impaired resistance, chances are, nothing much is stopping those bacteria from multiplying to their hearts' content.

This means more acne.

Can you see the importance of knowing the smaller nuances of how things like stress affect your acne?

Only by knowing can you make informed decisions that lead to healthier skin.

Lastly, psychological stress can delay wound healing [8]. So, not only are your active pimples redder and plentiful because of stress. Now, it's going to take longer for them to go away too.

This is especially bad if you're dealing with Acne Excoriée, a type of acne where you have a conscious, repetitive, and uncontrollable desire to pick, scratch, or rub acne lesions [9]. 

Don’t we all, to some degree?

Naturally, skin picking seen in this type of acne typically worsens when a person is stressed [10].

To sum it up, stress can make acne worse by:

  • Triggering excess oil production
  • Contributing to skin inflammation
  • Impairing resistance to infection
  • Delaying wound healing 

Okay, enough theory.

Let’s see how you can spot stress acne.

How can you spot stress acne?

Stress acne

It's easy to mistake stress acne for hormonal acne. After all, they're both related to hormones.

Both stress acne and hormonal acne influence androgen levels to affect breakouts  [11]. 

To spot stress acne, it can be helpful to track your acne triggers.

For example, if your acne breakouts happen mostly around your period, you're likely dealing with hormonal acne. That was “easy” enough to spot. 

But if breakouts tend to happen after particularly stressful periods, then that's your clue for stress acne. Still relatively easy to spot.

All it requires is a bit of awareness.

The next thing to look out for is where you're getting the breakouts. 

Hormonal acne tends to reappear at the same spot you usually get them. And often, that's along the chin and jawline. A lot more painful cystic acne can be involved too [11].

With stress acne, you'll usually spot them where you're oiliest [12]. For many people, that's usually their T-zone. Ever got multiple pimples on your forehead after a very stressful semester? 

I know I have. That’s typically stress acne. 

And along with oiliness, stress acne can manifest as blackheads, whiteheads, larger-looking pores, and rough and coarse skin [1]. Those are characteristics you won't typically see in regular acne.

How is stress acne treated?

Stress acne

From the Stanford University School of Medicine study to more recent studies (like this one from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), and everything else in between, we're becoming more knowledgeable about management and treatments for stress acne. 

Very, very important note here: While decreasing stress can improve your skin, it is often not a cure in itself.  

Hyper focusing on eliminating stress for better skin will probably work against you. That's just going to make you more stressed.

We'll look at ways to manage stress in the heading below. 

For stress breakouts, (and breakouts in general), a solid skin care routine is the cornerstone of better skin health. 

Treatments like retinol, benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid are effective against acne... [13].

They’re only a small part of a good, long-term routine. 

Another important thing is to try your best to stick to your skin care routine even during times of stress. It's easy to skip your nighttime routine when you feel that increase in stress.

I know that sometimes it happens. It does for all of us. And that’s okay. Just do your best.

I like to look at my skin care session as an opportunity to relax. That way, I actually look forward to doing it. And that helps me be more consistent. And therefore see better results, even during stressful times. 

If you're new to using targeted products in your routine—or having a skin care routine in general—I highly suggest looking at this post next. 

It goes deep into the 3 main areas that cause acne breakouts and gives you practical tips you can implement today that will help move you in the right direction immediately. 

How can you prevent stress acne?

If preventing stress is what we need to prevent stress acne, then we might as well give up now. Feelings of stress are part of everyday life.

Accepting that it's okay to be stressed—that it's normal and not a sign of weakness—is the first step you need to take to decrease your stress levels.

Keyword: Acceptance

Activities that make us relaxed can vary a lot from person to person. Some evidence does point to meditation as a helpful way to relax and ease your mind [14].

I know meditation helps a ton for my own well-being. 

Stress acne

But it can be difficult to squeeze 20 minutes into your day. Especially if you feel stressed. So if you’re going to try meditating, even 1 minute can help.

In fact, try this right now.

For the next 20 seconds, close your eyes, focus your attention on your breathing. While you inhale, slowly count to 4. Next, hold for 4 seconds. Exhale for 4 seconds. Lastly, hold for 4 seconds.

This is known as box breathing. Top trained military people use this exact technique in stressful moments when they need to calm down.

I’ll repeat. Right now, close your eyes, breathe in slowly for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4, then breathe out slowly for 4 seconds, and finish by holding your breath for 4 without air in your lungs.

Whenever I use the box breathing technique, I feel an instant relaxation. Even 20 seconds make a difference. 

Some other practical things you can do is yoga or tai chi can help fight stress.

Stress acne

I personally love yoga. I don’t do it as much as I’d like to, but when I do, I always feel less stressed afterwards.

Also, a reminder…

Try to be aware of your nervous habits during times of stress. If you have skin-picking tendencies, this post about how to stop pimple-popping may help.

I hope you enjoy all these practical tips so far.

Let’s do one more.

With how stress can make you more oily, consistently washing your face with a gentle cleanser is helpful. Especially if you have acne-prone skin.

Countering the effects like excess sebum will always be helpful to prevent acne. Including stress acne.

I know that managing and decreasing your stress levels will take some time to do.

It will require you to bring awareness to your stress. And it may require you to adopt new habits like the 20-second breathing meditation.

But if you do decide to implement a few of these tips to your day, you’ll quickly notice that you feel more calm and centered — and that your stress acne calms down, too.

Plus, mindfulness, gentle exercises, and meditation don't cause a single penny, so you have nothing to lose — besides your stress acne (: 


I hope this post helped bring your mind at ease.

If you’ve got 10 seconds, I’d love to hear what your favorite part of the post was for you?

Comment down below. 

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